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Hardware Hotness: AMD's Zen CPU, Gaming Monitors, More VR And The Silliest Laptop Ever

Bits and PCs

What with the sober-suited Euro foil to CES that is the IFA consumer electronics show, Intel's IDF shindig, a new console or two from Sony and new version of the smartphone that dare not speak its name, it's been a busy week or two in tech. But has there been any joy for the good old PC? You know, that dessicated old thing that just so happens to be by far the best gaming platform, period? There's certainly been some startling new PC-gaming kit, including surely the most preposterous gaming laptop ever. But also some newness of genuine relevance, including an update on AMD's new Zen CPU, some very interesting screens, plus a few further potentially PC-related oddities that are hard to gauge for now.

Of course, with the steady flow of new graphics cards from AMD and Nvidia, the PC hasn't been doing badly of late. It's just with the mainstream media slavishly hyping the latest lump of fractionally iterative shininess, I do rather pine for the days when a new GPU was the biggest noise in tech news.

Anywho, let's start with something silly, the new Acer Predator 21 X. Ostensibly, it's a laptop. But with a 21-inch curved display and a pair of Nvidia GTX 1080 graphics chips (real GTX 1080s, not the usual re-badge for laptops based on a weedier chip), I'm fairly sure I wouldn't want it on my lap.

Pair of GTX 1080s, anyone?

It also appears to be hewn from the sort of clangy, brittle plastic that's standard fare for big gaming laptops. As it happens, I was perusing a £2,700 gaming laptop earlier today. It was well equipped with a GTX 1080 (just the one) and a lovely 17-inch IPS screen. But the chassis was unforgivable if utterly predictable. Awful plastics, adolescent styling, catflap-in-a-tornado build quality. Given that the PC's audience is older than other gaming platforms, why are so many gaming laptops styled to look like tacky toys? It's one of life's great mysteries.

Of more relevance and also tolerably sober of suit are Alienware's new laptops. Models 13, 15 an d 17 denote the screen size and respectively they'll be getting Nvidia's Geforce GTX 1060, 1070 and 1080 graphics. My understanding is that, again, these graphics chips are the real deal, in contrast to recent notebook chips which have usually involved misleading branding compared with their desktop siblings. They're all a bit slimmer than their progenitors and the 17 incher gets both G-Sync with 120Hz refresh and Tobii eye tracking tech. More on the latter interfrastically. They will, of course, be very expensive.

Sober-suited, as these things go

Speaking of expensive, how about LG's new 38-inch monitor, the 38UC99? For just $1,499 and no doubt similar figure in post-Brexit sterling, you get 38 inches of curved IPS splendour and 3,840 by 1,600 pixels. It's kind of a 4K respin on the increasingly popular 21:9 curved monitor craze, to which even our own Alec has succumb.

38 inches of gaming splendour

Intriguingly, it sports 75Hz FreeSync support, so it does actually have some genuine gaming credentials. It also has a Windows app for controlling the image quality settings. I like the sound of that. I'd be surprised if it wasn't a pretty glorious gaming companion. Also, with six million pixels to a full 4K monitor's eight million pixels, it'll be that little bit easier to drive. I want one fairly badly.

Somewhat more accessible are a new line of monitors from Acer that all sport the aforementioned Tobii eyetracking technology. I can't say I've seen this in action, but apparently the gist involves an infrared light based eye tracking features that allows games to literally aim with their eyes. Is this amazing or irrelevant? I have no idea, but it does at least sound intriguing.

Anyway, the cheapest of the new Acers with Tobii tracking will be the Predator XB251HQT, but it's pricing is not yet known. From the looks of things the premium for the addition of the Tobii tech over an otherwise similar monitor looks likely to be roughly in the $3-400 / £3-400 region.

Acer's Predator XB251HQT is one of three new models with Tobii eye-tracking tech

And so AMD's Zen CPU. As I've mentioned before, this really is the great hope for the PC's medium term health, a competitive CPU from AMD. At its tradition side show held in parallel with Intel's IDF shindig recently, AMD showed a 3GHz Zen chip with eight cores very slightly beating an eight-core Intel desktop CPU.

It was only one benchmark. But it's very, very promising because Zen only needs to be close to Intel to dramatically shake up the currently stagnant state of affairs in PC processors. If anything, I'd probably prefer AMD was still a little off the pace and offered, say, eight-core CPUs that were generally about 15 per cent slower than Intel's for 60 per cent of the price rather than a chip that's about as good for a similarly OTT price.

Zen is due out early next year and will probably come in four and eight-core versions at launch. For now the good news is that it seems they have working silicon and it's very likely at least some progress over the Bulldozer experiment that gave us today's failing AMD FX processors. Fingers crossed.

It's another new VR headset...

Finally, a couple of potential alternatives to the Vive and Rift VR duo appeared from Alcatel and Qualcomm. Probably the most significant is the Qualcomm VR820 and for two reasons. First, in part due to its business making chips for smartphones, Qualcomm is one of the big boys. But the VR820 also has the edge on the Vive and Rift in terms of resolution with 1,440 by 1,440 pixels per eye, though its 70Hz refresh is a little off the 90Hz pace. It also manages its head tracking without any external cameras or sensors.

The VR820 isn't an actual shipping product yet and Lord knows if it even works. It's also a complicated prospect in terms of software support. There are only so many VR headsets a given game developer can support. But another major player in the VR game would more likely be a positive for competition and pricing. The sooner the technology becomes really affordable, the sooner we can find out whether it really is going to take over PC gaming.

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Jeremy Laird